FCC media content probe doesn’t seem to be happening

Tim Cavanaugh | Contributor

More than six weeks after the Federal Communications Commission announced a broad probe of political speech that raised serious First Amendment concerns, the city where the program was scheduled to begin has yet to hear from the Feds.

On November 1, the FCC announced that it would begin a pilot of its “Critical Information Needs” (CIN) survey in the Columbia, South Carolina media market.

The CIN survey — which would include invasive questioning about how stories get selected, whether management ever spikes pieces, and other areas that the government has traditionally left to the judgment of the private sector — has generated strong opposition since it was reported in The Daily Caller in October. (RELATED: FCC to police news media, question reporters in wide-ranging content survey)

The survey is ostensibly aimed at assessing barriers to entry in multiple “media ecologies” around the country, with a “special emphasis on vulnerable/disadvantaged populations,” according to a methodology of the study [pdf] published by Silver Spring, Maryland-based Social Solutions International, which is conducting the probe.

Media observers and House Republicans have pushed back against the FCC’s plan to demand a remarkably wide range of information on demographics, point of view, news topic selection, management style and other factors in news organizations both in and out of the FCC’s traditional purview. The airwaves regulator would subject news producers in all media — including print and online media not subject to FCC regulation — to interrogation about their work and content.

Last week, Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan and Greg Walden of Oregon — the chairmen, respectively, of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Subcommittee on Telecommunications & Technology — detailed a variety of concerns in a letter [pdf] to new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

The House leaders challenged the FCC’s authority to conduct the survey; warned of the implied threat to “information unfettered by direct or indirect intrusion by the government”; and questioned the study’s price tag of more than $900,000, among other concerns.

First Amendment advocates and the National Association of Broadcasters have also slammed the idea. Hudson Institute Fellow Robert McDowell, who served as an FCC commissioner from 2009 to 2013, told The Daily Caller in October that the survey “starts sticking the government’s nose into what has traditionally been privileged and protected ground. Regardless of one’s political stripes, one should be concerned.”

There’s just one complication: Nobody in Columbia has heard from the FCC at all, and neither the FCC nor Social Solutions International has responded to multiple requests for comment.

The major broadcast stations in Columbia told The Daily Caller they have not been contacted by the FCC or Social Solutions International. Nor has the South Carolina Broadcasters Association heard from the airwaves regulator.

Because the CIN survey is designed to take in non-broadcast media, TheDC also contacted Mark Lett, executive editor of The State, Columbia’s daily newspaper. “I hadn’t heard about that,” Lett told TheDC. “This is the first I’ve heard of it. We’ve had no contact from the FCC whatsoever.”

The general manager for CBS affiliate WLTX told The Daily Caller nobody at the station had received a contact from either the FCC or SSI. “I read an article that said work has started,” Rich O’Dell said. “From that I wonder, maybe somebody is beginning to develop a questionnaire. But we haven’t been contacted.”

“We saw something in the trades over a month ago,” Donita Todd, general manager of local NBC affiliate WIS, told TheDC. “But we have not heard anything from the FCC. In speaking with other broadcasters in the area, nobody’s heard anything. Perhaps they’re reaching out to people outside the media first.”

An executive producer at ABC-affiliated WOLO said he had “read about it in the trades but not heard anything directly.”

Shani White, executive director of the South Carolina Broadcasters Association, said the group had not received any information other than what has appeared in public media. White specified that the group had no position on the survey, but when asked about the concerns raised by the House GOP and First Amendment advocates, she said, “I understand where they’re coming from.”

The FCC’s November 1 announcement came just a day after Tom Wheeler was approved by the U.S. Senate as the Commission’s new chairman. The survey was planned under Wheeler’s predecessor, interim commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who hails from South Carolina and is the daughter of the Palmetto State’s Democratic Rep. James Clyburn.

Some FCC watchers speculate that Wheeler does not share Clyburn’s interest in the CIN survey. The survey itself is an outgrowth of the Commission’s quadrennial review of media ownership, which has been consistently downgraded since it was implemented after the 1996 Telecommunications Act. (Julius Genachowski, the last full commissioner, didn’t even bother to conduct the scheduled review, and whatever work was done on it will apparently be rolled into the next four-year review.)

Wheeler has also received some guarded praise from free speech advocates, including Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who withdrew his hold on Wheeler’s nomination after Wheeler persuaded him that he had no plans to impose aspects of the failed DISCLOSE ACT, which would have rolled back the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

The FCC and Social Solutions International did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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